To be able to prescribe the right remedy to his penitent’s spiritual sickness, the confessor must know its origin and cause. Some confessors ask for nothing more than the number and the species of the sins. As soon as they are convinced that the penitent is disposed, they send him away almost without a word.
A good confessor acts very differently. First he investigates to find out how the sickness started and how grave it has become. He asks if there is a habit of sin, if there are occasions – some time or place or persons or circumstances that provoke him to sin. In this way, he can do a better job of correcting the penitent, of disposing him for absolution, and of giving him profitable remedies for correcting his sins.
Next he makes the pertinent observations. Even though he should treat his penitents as a loving father, still as a doctor he is bound, when it is necessary, to warn and to correct them. This is especially necessary in the case of the very sinful who seldom come to confession. He should warn and correct everyone who needs it, without respect of persons. It makes no difference whether he be priest or prelate, governor or elite, as long as he has confessed with little evidence of sorrow. Pope Benedict XIV compares the words of the confessor to those of the preacher: “The confessor’s warnings are much more effective than those of the preacher, for he knows the case in question and the preacher does not. For this reason, he can make more pertinent warnings and prescribe remedies which fit this particular sin.”
The confessor should never worry about the ones waiting in line for confessions. As St. Francis Xavier said, it is better to hear a few confessions well than to hear many which bear little fruit. Confessors sin if they come across an indisposed penitent and immediately tell him to leave the confessional, for fear of wasting time with him. Learned theologians have said that, when a penitent comes indisposed, the confessor is obliged as far as possible to dispose him for absolution. To do this, he could tell the penitent, for example, how much his sin’s have offended God, how great is his danger of being condemned to hell, and so forth. And it makes little difference if others are waiting or even if they leave without going to confession, for the confessor is responsible not for them, but for the one who is here and now in the confessional.
The confessor is also obliged to instruct the penitent if he is culpably ignorant of any point of natural or positive law. If he is inculpably ignorant, it depends. If he is inculpably ignorant of something necessary for salvation, then the confessor is obliged to instruct him. If he is inculpably ignorant of some other matter (of which he can be ignorant) – even something of the divine law, the confessor should prudently decide whether the instruction will be profitable for the penitent. If it will not be profitable, he should not make the correction, but rather leave him in good faith. The reason is: the danger of formal sin is a much more serious thing than material sin. God punishes formal sin, for that alone is what offends Him. This I proved more sufficiently in my Moral Theology. […]
When the penitent’s ignorance redounds to the harm of the common good. The confessor is a defender of the good of society and he is bound to prefer the public good to the private good of his penitent, even when he realizes that the correction will be useless. Consequently, he must always instruct rulers, confessors, prelates, and parish priests who are neglecting their obligations, because ignorance in these men – even if it is invincible – will always hurt society. People will see what they are doing and consider it all right to imitate them.